Why & How Employee Engagement in Higher Education Can Help


Higher education is facing enormous hurdles. By some estimates, 50% of universities and colleges in the U.S. are likely to face bankruptcy in the coming decades. Most colleges failed to meet their revenue or enrollment goals for 2016. National Student Clearinghouse data shows U.S. college enrollment has declined for five consecutive years and is projected to continue declining for the next two decades.

Some question whether a higher education has become too commonplace. Sociologists James Côté and Anton Allahar for example, speak of an “oversupply of higher degrees” that has resulted in “lost market value”

How can employee engagement in higher education flourish in an environment where the majority of chief business administrators admit higher education is in the midst of a crisis? Where, according to Cornerstone and Ellucian’s 2016 Employee Engagement and Retention in Higher Education survey, 39% of colleges and universities don’t offer any form of employee engagement opportunities such as leadership development, coaching, or recognition programs and nearly half of respondents say employee engagement is neither tracked nor measured at their institutions.

Why should employee engagement be on the radar of higher education leaders when there’s so much else to contend with?

For starters, a 2016 Gallup survey found that 52% of higher education faculty are not engaged in their work, and 14 percent are actively disengaged.  The black and white outcomes from this disconnect?

  • 61 percent of institutions have difficulty sourcing top faculty
  • 59 percent struggle to retain top faculty
  • 27 percent report above average turnover rates for faculty

Challenges sourcing and retaining top administrative staff are even higher.

It’s a well-known fact that faculty tend to distance themselves from mundane administrative matters. Their participation rates in employee engagement surveys are notoriously low. Yet they have good reason to express their positions. The trend toward hiring more contingent faculty and fewer full-time professors is a case in point. In Samantha Stainburn’s New York Times article, The Case of the Vanishing Full-Time Professor, the writer reveals in 1960, 75% of instructors were full-time tenured or tenure-track professors. By 2010 that number had dropped to 27% and continues a downward descent. “The rest are graduate students or adjunct and contingent faculty — instructors employed on a per-course or yearly contract basis, usually without benefits and earning a third or less of what their tenured colleagues make.”

How does this disparity impact employee engagement levels? Education quality? The opportunity to collaborate? Advance ideas and research? What does it mean from a student’s perspective?

In his research, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen found that most of the successful alumni who gave generous donations to their alma maters did so because an individual faculty member had inspired them and they wanted to recognize that individual’s impact on their lives.

Colleges and universities would do well to borrow a page from their donors’ books. Acknowledgement is the first and most economical place for higher education institutions to make employee engagement in roads.

In an interview with University Business, employee recognition authorities Adrian Gostick and Bob Nelson shared a few tricks of their trade:

  • Many employees uproot their family from other parts of the country or world to accept a college or university post. Send a thank you gift basket to the home of faculty or staff when they’ve worked long hours, met a tough deadline, done something of note. That simple gesture of appreciation becomes more meaningful by giving those the individual loves a sense of involvement and pride.
  • Perform a routine task the celebrated employee dislikes: some of their dreaded paperwork, attending a committee meeting on their behalf or teaching their class on a Friday afternoon.
  • Acknowledge and give accolades daily or weekly, as opportunities present.
  • Ask faculty or staff who receive an award to select two colleagues who helped them earn it. Acknowledge the efforts of those colleagues too.
  • Each week or month ask a different staff or faculty member to recognize one co-worker for doing something above and beyond and to pick a reward (which can range from the co-worker’s favorite cookies to officially declaring a workday as “co-worker X’s” day).
  • At department or faculty meetings, ask attendees to share one way they recognized someone in their department. Or select an individual in attendance and ask everyone else at the meeting to make one comment about why they like this individual or how this person has helped them in the past.

Learning and development opportunities carry a lot of weight too. While learning is rightfully focused on students, research from TalentMap’s 2017 Benchmark Report shows professional development is the number one engagement driver for employees of higher education institutions.

TalentMap research also indicates nearly half of higher education respondents point to more collaboration as a source of employee engagement. Tellingly, 53% see an opportunity for their institutions to improve student/customer feedback programs. Is this an indirect way for faculty and staff to receive recognition and praise in an environment that often forgets to do so?

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